The Florida Department of Children and Families’ new secretary promises to take a sharp turn away from the secrecy that has put too many children in danger — and may have cost some their lives.
That’s laudable. But for the sake of abused, neglected and abandoned children across the state, Gov. Rick Scott and legislators should ensure that Secretary Mike Carroll follows through on his promises.
Indeed, DCF’s first reaction to the Miami Herald’s recent series detailing the deaths of 477 children was predictable — and wholly unacceptable.
The Herald’s series “Innocents Lost” detailed the deaths of children – including eight in Bay County – left in homes known to be troubled, often with inadequate follow-up or even willful blindness to the presence of dangerous, violent adults. Following its publication, DCF officials choked off access to full reports of child deaths. They redacted key details, including accounts of the agency’s prior contact with families where abuse or neglect was suspected. Some of the reports requested by the Herald in recent months were returned with all but one or two sentences blacked out.
During the recent legislative session, the Herald reported, DCF staff also quietly pushed for legislative changes that would have injected vagueness into statutory language requiring prompt reporting of child deaths, killed a key oversight committee and done away with protocols meant to focus immediate attention on suspicious deaths.
Those efforts to block transparency ultimately failed. Inspired by the Herald’s reporting, the Legislature sent a comprehensive reform bill to Scott. He should sign it. But even without the new law, DCF should acknowledge that more transparency is essential.
Indeed, it’s hard to see why the agency fought for obscurity. Florida’s failure to protect vulnerable children stems largely from efforts to conduct child protection on the cheap, stinting on services — such as child care, substance-abuse treatment and mental health services — that can help heal broken families before tragedy strikes. And for every dead child, there are countless others who grow up with serious, societal costly problems that might have been prevented with the right kind of family support.
Unflinching honesty about child deaths is paramount to fixing the problems in the system. It fosters trust that DCF will use every resource available wisely and effectively to help protect children.
On Monday, his first day on the job as DCF’s new secretary, Carroll vowed that the agency would rededicate itself to that kind of transparency. He’s creating a high-level position in his department that will oversee all child deaths. “Our goal is to increase awareness so that communities across the state can identify where additional resources and efforts are needed to assist struggling families,” he wrote in a memo announcing the changes.
It’s a commendable commitment, but Floridians have heard these sorts of promises before. This time, things must be different — and if Carroll doesn’t follow through, Scott and state lawmakers should be prepared to force more openness.
These statistics and detailed reports are grim. But they are endangered children’s only chance to be heard — before even more of their voices are silenced forever.